Ariana Grande’s exploitation of affect for capitalistic gains
by Olivia Church
Earlier this year, Ariana Grande got engaged to the comedian Pete Davidson, and the couple had an extremely public relationship and breakup. After their split, Davidson made a joke at her expense on SNL, prompting her to tweet “for somebody who claims to hate relevancy u sure love clinging to it huh” followed by “thank u, next”. These tweets, and the break-up anthem they inspired, can be understood as a direct expression of Grande’s feelings at the time, and her passive-aggressive tone as the result of her frustration at his perceived betrayal.
Affect circulates on the internet in a rather interesting manner, with one tweet able to reach the screens of millions of users in seconds, and legions of followers immediately mimicking their hero’s emotional state.
“thank u, next”, one of this year’s most successful pop songs, is the perfect example of a text wherein the artist has mined her personal life and private feelings for capitalist gains, i.e. one that sells affect to and induces emotion in its listeners. Grande’s choice to share these private feelings with her millions of followers is part of a cycle of affective flow: an emotion is produced within her, which she shares, thus inducing a related emotion in the millions privy to the initial tweet. This is clearly the circulation of affect, but the question arises, how is this labour?
In her work On Affective Labour, Silvia Federici notes that affective labour “refers to the interactive character of work, to its capacity to promote flows of communication”. While perhaps an unorthodox text with which to examine affective labour, Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” can be understood as encompassing many of the elements of this form of labour.
Grande’s now deleted tweets certainly induced feelings in her fans and contributed to affective flow, but how can this simple act be considered in the same category as flight attendants or waitresses, who perform much more extreme versions of affective labour for their customers? Hardt and Negri’s 2004 article, quoted by Federici, notes that “affective labour is labour that produces or manipulates affects, such as a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion”. There is no doubt that Grande’s tweets evoked some of these affects in her followers. As well, it is extremely uncommon for any young performer in 2018 to not have a consistently-updated social media presence that reflects their personal brand, which serves to bolster their career. Thus, Grande’s tweeting comprise an integral part of her job, and directly help her to gain more capital. While the massive capitalist success of “thank u, next” cannot be solely attributed to Grande’s tweets, there is no doubt correlation between the affective flow she triggered with her and the capital she gained as a result.
Federici outlines Negri and Hardt’s argument that “every articulation of social life becomes a point of production and society itself becomes an immense work-machine”. This idea can be understood in the context of celebrity culture in 2018, wherein musicians are expected to share private aspects of their personal lives on social media for consumption by fans. Affective labour, as we know, is organized just as ruthlessly as products on the industrial assembly line are. This sharing of private thoughts deepens the perceived relationship between artist and fan, thus securing support and thus capitalist gains. This phenomenon is exemplified in the opening lines of “thank u, next”, wherein Grande name-drops four of her famous ex-boyfriends, condescendingly referring to the aforementioned Pete Davidson as something to be “so thankful” for, and her recently deceased rapper ex-boyfriend Mac Miller as “an angel.” In referring to these men by their names, effectively bucking any semblance of privacy for them or herself, Grande is mining her private life for capitalist gains, selling her past relationships as an object on the market like any other, just as Hardt and Negri described. As Federici notes in On Affective Labour, emotional labourers are often required to “give their soul, their whole self to the job”. While in this passage she is referring to service industry workers, this can be understood as shaping why and how celebrities like Ariana Grande are willing to put their personal lives up for sale, as in “thank u, next”.
“thank u, next” has been aggressively marketed as a feminist empowerment song, and the promotion of it has focused Grande’s status as a symbol of neoliberal, western feminism in 2018. The song has been referred to in popular discourse as having “revolutionary power” (Fessler), among other superlatives, and her savvy marketing team has been sure to downplay the obvious cynicism of selling one’s personal heartbreak on the market. This message of empowerment comes at a time when young women are uniquely primed to accept that message, as feminism has become mainstream and thus marketable to the masses. Thus, Grande’s message of empowerment has the ability to evoke the affect of passion among its listeners,similar to the zeitgeist inspired by the Spice Girls 2000 song, “Wannabe,” which also had liberal feminist undertones while packaged in a pop song. “thank u, next” induces in its listeners feelings of passion, excitement, empowerment, and joy, thanks to the labour that Grande did in inducing related emotions in herself. Whether or not this is difficult labour is up for discussion, but labour it is. It’s how Grande has made her fortune.
The combination of the the song’s feminist undertones with allusions to her private heartbreak set the groundwork for the affective flow that is induced. The millions of listeners who stream “thank u, next” are digesting Grande’s message of rising from heartbreak and thriving without a boyfriend are imbued with the affect that the song has inspired in them. Federici notes that affect “signifies our capacity for interactivity, our capacity to move and to be moved in an endless flow of exchanges and encounters presumably expanding our powers”. The way that “thank u, next” can be understood as affective labour is demonstrated in her production of an emotion within herself, followed by the induction of a related emotion in those who are part of the cycle, all for a capitalist end.
Grande’s capitalization upon her personal traumas and heartbreak allows her to speak directly to her listeners, who feel understood in her lyrics and represented in feminism, all of which contribute to a cycle of affective flow. In mining her most intimate feelings and featuring them in her songs, she evokes related ones in listeners. This cycle benefits Grande in that it strengthens the perceived emotional connection between her and her fans, and guarantees that her affective labour will be paid for via inevitable capitalist success. While Grande’s labour may seem to differ greatly from that of a high-end waitress or an anxiety-quelling flight attendant, there is little doubt that she is engaging in a form of affective labour in “thank u, next.”
Federici, Silvia. Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor. Eds. Michael A. Peters and Ergin Bulut. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. 57-73.
Fessler, Leah. “The Revolutionary Power of Ariana Grande's ‘Thank u, next.’” Quartz, Quartz, 17 Nov. 2018, qz.com/quartzy/1460696/ariana-grandes-thank-u-next-is-a-refreshing-reminder-that-you-dont-need-to-hate-your-ex/.
Grande, Ariana (ArianaGrande). “for somebody who claims to hate relevancy u sure love clinging to it huh.” 1 November 2018, 8:31 PM. Tweet.
Grande, Ariana (ArianaGrande). “thank u, next.” 1 November 2018, 8:32 PM. Tweet.